Chia buồn is how one expresses condolences in Vietnamese. Instead of my thoughts are with you or sorry for your loss, the term literally means to divide (chia) sadness (buồn). If only I could have invited others to hold pieces of my shattered heart when Ông Nội died June 26 at the age of 101.
Pandemic times has stolen our joy, changed our experiences of happy moments. Vacation getaways cancelled. Weddings, graduations, and celebrations postponed. Newborn babies introduced to loved ones by video-chat. A welcomed caress across the shoulders, a clasping of hands, a cuddle to bring comfort – missing.
Pandemic times has also stolen my grief.
I only knew my grandfather, who lived in Vietnam, from short trips. Having immigrated to Canada when I was three years old, I cherished the fragments of time spent with Ông Nội when visiting the land of my ancestors. He had white hair cropped close to his head, usually dressed in a white long-sleeve button-up shirt and black dress pants, said little to me but observed much. On one trip when I was twenty-four and he was eighty-six, touring Hà Nội, I remember threading my arm boldly through his as we strolled around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm. His arm was solid, steady, and he supported me more than I supported him. Was this what it would be like walking arm-in-arm with my dad, Ông Nội’s son, who died so many years earlier? This familiarity, this hum on my skin, this wellness in my heart.
Hug me, I requested of my husband and kids when the weight of Ông Nội’s passing felt too great. While I would not have travelled from Winnipeg to Trảng Bàng for the funeral, my mom, aunt, and uncles would have. They would have hugged each other, held each other, and helped each other to heal. Instead, each family sat in our respective homes and video-chatted with each other while watching the funeral rites on Facebook Live.
Watching the broadcast was better than nothing, my re-frame-into-the-positive perspective whispered. But it still sucked, another part of me shouted. In the front room of the house where Ông Nội raised his family, he was laid in his coffin as Buddhist monks in their saffron robes chanted. Incense burned. Plates of food were arranged on his altar, to nourish him in the life beyond this one. Family members gathered before the altar as other attendees stood outside. Bouquets of flowers filled up all the other spaces. But watching these proceedings felt like watching a movie, distant and impersonal. I didn’t want the camera to feature the monks. I wanted to focus on my aunts in their white mourning clothes, sobbing, me aching to take a piece of their buồn, to lighten their burden.
On Canada Day, my mom, sister, cousin, and I gathered at my mom’s house to watch Ông Nội’s burial. We all sat an arm’s length apart from each other and I washed my hands after holding theirs, relishing this brief contact. I longed to hug my mom, after three and a half months, sustained instead on feeling her phantom arms around me, how she held on a little longer than I did, and her ghost cheek on mine. We didn’t embrace. Manitoba was only in phase two, and I already felt guilty just being in the house, mingling people from three different households.
When my sister shed tears, I gave her a compassionate look but didn’t reach out. She folded her arms across her own chest tightly. When my cousin stated that usually Ông Nội’s eldest son would be the one to carry the stick that warded away the evil spirits during the funeral procession, I burst into tears. That should have been my dad standing there in front of the coffin. Instead, he had preceded Ông Nội into the afterlife.
In that moment, I cried for my grandfather, cried for my dad who had left me when I was seven years old, and cried for myself. I could not turn to anyone to ask them to wrap their arms around me. That sense of wellbeing when connecting with another person – missing.
In that moment, I felt the weight of absence. It was my burden to carry alone. How to chia buồn? How to parcel out pieces of my grief when I felt too guilty to touch my own mom and sister? The unfamiliarity of the Buddhist funeral rituals only heightened this sense. As part of the Vietnamese diaspora, I have been absent from my country of origin. I have missed growing up with my grandparents, missed their hugs and caresses, light touches. I have missed growing up within the traditions, language, and norms of the land where I was born.
Not having to explain.
Not existing at the margins.
Having my experience be the default.
I mourned Ông Nội and all that was missing.
You’re lucky to live in Canada, my re-frame-into-the-positive perspective whispered. But absence still sucks, another part of me shouted.
February 2019 was the last time I visited Ông Nội. His bed had been moved to the back of the house on the main floor, it was cooler there and allowed for visitors. I felt so grateful to be able to introduce my grandfather to his great-grandson, my son, for the first and only time. When they touched hands, did their skin know each other, blood calling to blood? The night before we were leaving Trảng Bàng, after my daughter said goodbye to him, I held Ông Nội’s hand. I savoured that moment because I knew it would be for the last time; I committed the sensations to memory. What I wouldn’t know then was that one year later, touch would be missing for so many of us.
His hands were shaking as he lay on his bed, his eyes fluttering closed, reaching. I grasped one hand between my own and held it steady. The wrinkles and spots formed the diagram of his life’s story through war and famine, family, loss and joy. His skin was thin like paper yet soft, his grip was gentle yet present, long fingers curling around my palm. More than I ever could in my basic Vietnamese, I attempted to say much through that touch. I committed to memory the wellbeing in my heart, wanting to chia it, to share it. I held on as long as I could.